U.S. first lady Jill Biden made a surprise visit Sunday to Ukraine, where she met with Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska at a school that has been converted into a shelter for people fleeing violence and Russian bombing elsewhere in the country.
Biden crossed the Slovakia-Ukraine border into the city of Uzhhorod in the southwestern corner of the country after visiting with Ukrainian refugees who fled their homeland to Slovakia.
Zelenska, the 44-year-old wife of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has been in hiding, along with their two children, since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 10 weeks ago.
Zelenska stepped out of a black SUV that was guarded by a Ukrainian soldier. Biden handed her flowers on Mother’s Day and the two hugged before meeting in a small side room at the shelter.
“I wanted to come on Mother’s Day,” Biden said. “We thought it was important to show the Ukrainian people that this war has to stop, and this war has been brutal. And the people of the U.S. stand with the people of Ukraine.”
“We feel it,” Zelenska responded.
“First of all, I would like to thank you for a very courageous act,” Zelenska said. “Because we understand what it takes for the U.S. first lady to come here during a war when the military actions are taking place every day, where the air sirens are happening every day, even today.”
“We all feel your support and we all feel the leadership of the U.S. president, but we would like to note that the Mother’s Day is a very symbolic day for us because we also feel your love and support during such an important day.”
U.S. officials said Biden had previously communicated with Zelenska, exchanging correspondence in the last few weeks.
For security reasons, the first lady’s visit to Ukraine was not announced ahead of time or on her public schedule. Biden’s motorcade was pared down for the drive into Ukraine, and several staffers stayed behind in Slovakia.
Biden and Zelenska talked behind closed doors for more than an hour and then joined children at the center who were doing arts and crafts, making bears out of tissue paper and cardboard.
The visit by a U.S. first lady to a war zone was unusual but not unprecedented.
Laura Bush traveled to Afghanistan in 2005 and 2008.
IN 2015, Michelle Obama visited Qatar’s al-Udeid Airbase, which was designated a combat zone. Al-Udeid has been used for U.S. military operations in the Middle East.
Some material in this report came from the Associated Press.